When Clark Bunting started scheduling programming for The Discovery Channel, it was so easy. Head over to Europe with an empty suitcase. Meet with producers who had barely heard of the nascent cable net. Load your luggage with video masters and screeners that sometimes went immediately on the air and occasionally went on Bunting's personal credit card.
"It was a bit like MTV at the beginning," Bunting says. "Whatever was there went on the air. This was before we thought about things like audience flow and schedules."
He will probably be a little more disciplined now. Years after he began acquiring programming for Discovery and its other networks, Bunting is the new general manager of Discovery Channel, a payoff for his success starting up Discovery Communications' Animal Planet.
That channel was envisioned in 1995 as cheap filler for cable operators' digital cable tiers. But response from operators and viewers was strong enough to make it a full-blown analog cable network, with strong distribution into 67 million homes, although Nielsen ratings are still mixed.
His goal is to give Discovery's programming a little more personality and structure. Discovery is better known for events like Shark Week and Raising the Mammoth than its regular series. It also has no breakout stars like Animal Planet's Steve Irwin, the loud Australian host of The Crocodile Hunter.
"I see great ratings; I see great image," Bunting says. "I'd like to warm up the network a bit, a little tone and range. Put a little connective tissue between those big events."
Bunting was not made for television. The son of a Rochester, Mich., engineer for Chevrolet, he spent five years behind the sales counter of a Troy, Mich., jeweler waiting for his wife to finish grad school. Then he spent a year on the Washington staff of Michigan Congressman Bob Carr.
Itchy, he saw a want ad in the Washington Post
for someone to work on acquiring programming for Cable Education Network, then a tiny startup that had just launched Discovery Network.
Bunting got a full evangelical dose of Chairman John Hendricks, who had hit on the idea of educating the masses, building on thinly watched and distributed nature documentaries made for U.S. public television and overseas outlets. Even though the 3 p.m.-3 a.m. network had only 150,000 subscribers, Bunting was hooked.
"He was obviously a very charismatic kind of guy," Bunting says. And what impressed Hendricks about Bunting? "I don't think he could afford anybody with a background in television," says Bunting, Discovery employee No. 19. "In Washington, D.C., in 1985, there weren't a lot of people to choose from."
It was not glamorous. Hendricks was about six months away from running out of cash. Bunting cold-called producers around the world, armed only with exhibitor catalogs from international TV conventions. The books were scrounged from executives at other TV companies who had actually attended the markets.
It got easier. Major cable operators Cox Communications Inc., Tele-Communications Inc. and Newhouse Broadcasting Corp. stepped in with cash to keep Discovery going. By 1988, it was big enough to start co-producing its own big-splash events, the first being Ivory Wars, a critical study of elephant poaching. The company now stakes not just documentaries but expeditions, the way National Geographic did for decades.
"It gave me a great understanding of production and production management," says Bunting. "We're not on sound stages in L.A. You're in remote places; things can get away from you." He was in Kenya with Ivory Wars' producers when legendary British critic of lion poachers George Adamson was killed by robbers.
Bunting appreciates his ability to advance while staying at Discovery. "Obviously, we are conscious of ratings, and ratings are important," he says. "You get to do things that are illuminating. That opportunity is gone from most of media today."
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